• Reading The Tea Leaves

    Why a one-size-fits-all presentation approach means you won’t please everyone. May 2016

    Trying to be everything to everyone is a wasted opportunity, writes Ian Whitworth

    I’ve been trying to drink a bit less coffee lately. That means drinking tea, a product so dull it makes me feel like stabbing myself in the thigh with a pocket knife to check that I’m still alive.

    I’ve been through boring regular tea, tedious green tea, nauseating fruit-flavoured ‘infusions’, and arrived at the least worst of the teas, the African Rooibos tea. As you can see from the pack above, it’s just perfect for… well, pretty much everyone in the world. It’s one of those packages that come from marketing people drawing up a fantasy list of all the people they’re going to appeal to. Make sure we hit all those key target demographics!

    The trouble with that sort of thinking is that in real-world communication, the more you try to appeal to everyone, the less any given individual is going to care about you. Do sports people want to drink the tea that’s ideal for babies or grandfathers? I’m not feeling particularly special because I fit into one of the categories on that list, which would cover around 4.8 billion people at a guess. The only actual humans that don’t fit that list are non-parent adults, a group accustomed to neglect from both marketers and governments that believe if you’re not ‘ordinary mums and dads’ you’re a potential enemy of society, so no tax cuts for you. The tea people have some excuse in that they have to print packages. Economics dictate that you have to print two years worth of packaging, and you can’t customise it for anyone. Presentations are different. You can customize them with a few keystrokes and make them so much more special for each audience. You can make in-jokes about your audience’s industry.

    You can illustrate your message with case studies that are genuinely relevant. You can talk about stuff that few people outside the room would understand or care about, but those who get it will love you for it. This ability to infinitely customize is one of the great things about presentations as a communication medium. If you turn up and do the same templated speech to every single audience, as so many presenters do, you’re wasting a very precious opportunity for the want of a tiny bit of extra work. And with that column completed, it’s time to reward myself with a soothing cup of tea. Nah, screw that, a double espresso with a shot of grappa. Ideal for cranky events columnists!

  • Give It A Plug

    A nightmare tale of the perils of distracted pre-presentation banter. June 2016

    Ian Whitworth learns the perils of distracted pre-presentation banter

    I got a lot of nice emails about the column a couple of issues ago where my Scouser designer and I had to declare allegiance to a football team during a major new business pitch.

    I thought I’d fill you in on another presentation lesson from the other end of that project, a three month global branding odyssey. We had circumnavigated the globe twice, spending day after day discussing the challenges of construction industry professionals. We drank a reasonable amount of international beer to take the edge off this massive knowledge overdose. And every single conversation we had over the three months started with: “How was your flight?” It’s a hard one to answer unless you bust into a routine about airline food like some bad club comic. Flights are just not that interesting. “Good thanks,” we answered a million times. We had developed an exciting global brand, and done lots of behind-the-scenes lobbying between the Australians, Kiwis, Americans, Chinese and British to get it over the finish line.

    All that remained was a final presentation at the global business partners meeting in Sydney, a tricky affair. Their global partnership rules needed 100% approval of major moves like this. A single “no” vote could scuttle the ship. The sheer repetition and relentless travel had pushed us into a mental twilight zone. Our eyeballs were rotating like psychedelic pinwheels. Our flight from Phoenix landed in Sydney at 6:05 AM. The meeting was 10am. You know those flights where the plane pulls up to the gate and everyone jumps up excitedly, but the plane’s just slightly in the wrong position, so you have to wait half an hour standing at a weird angle under the overhead lockers? That happened. So I had a lot of time to examine the back of the head of the guy standing in front of me.

    He was slightly shorter than I am, and had one of those classic old school hair transplants, the perfectly-spaced plug forest that made him look like a hairbrush. In my brain-fried state, I became as hypnotised by this spectacle as any toad-licking North Coast stoner. If I rocked slowly from side to side, you got that same animation effect you get driving past a managed pine plantation. It was good for a solid fifteen minutes of old-fashioned freakshow amusement. Finally we escaped the plane, cabbed to the meeting, and started setting up our presentation. One of the client partners had already arrived. “How was your flight?” As I absently shuffled the PowerPoint, some part of my brain went: hey, for once I’ve got an interesting story for that! Like some chat show raconteur, I gave him the full hair plug story, full of flourishes and witty asides. People are fascinated by stories of male wigs and hair transplants. They go to the very heart of the male condition, with all its deluded vanity and futile attempts to stop the march of time.
    I stood up from the laptop and finished with: “So at least I got a story out of the flight, that hardly ever happens, eh?” “Yeah. (Pause). Of course back when I was 25 I started losing my hair, pretty young for that to happen, tough time. So I got it done,” he says. I look at his forehead. And Oh. My. God. Yes, he had the same dolls’ hair plug arrangement, disguised by it being strangely curlier than the usual do. All the air sucked out of the room. “Ah yes, I see you did,” I said. That was the best I had. There was no magic set of words that was going to dig me out of that dark pit. We both paused and looked out the window in that “let’s both pretend this never happened” way. He was remarkably civil for the rest of the day, all things considered, and voted in favour of our proposal. Lifetime note to self: when someone asks you how the flight was, you say:
    “Good thank you.” And stop it right there, fool.

  • Consultant or Tradie?

    Increasing your value to your clients to avoid the nightmare procurement department.

    Consider the real costs of your client’s event, writes Ian Whitworth

    There’s nothing quite like your long-term corporate client telling you that the purchase decision is out of their hands, and is now in the sinister clutches of the procurement department. So their corporate memory of all those times you saved them from self-inflicted disaster has evaporated, replaced by cold benchmarking of you against a clutch of cut-price randoms. The procurement people use all the right words. They promise to take a “holistic” view that values “quality and service metrics”, not just a brutal reverse auction down to the lowest, bottom-feeder price. After due consideration of the huge pile of documents you prepared, they choose: the lowest, bottom-feeder price.

    It’s partly our fault for letting it fall into exactly the same decision category as ring binders and paper towels. We haven’t communicated the sheer risk of events, and the major scope to waste time and money. One reason is that everyone looks at the expense budget: the actual money spent on airfares, venues, F&B, registration, AV and all the other items you juggle around your spreadsheet trying to meet the magic number. And if the procurement vultures think they can get that number down another 7.5%, you’d better believe they will. Their bonus is riding on it.

    But how much cash is actually at risk when they choose the cheapest supplier? Think about a two-day sales conference for 500 people. With travel, they’re out of the office for three days. Let’s be conservative and assume an average salary of $80,000. With on-costs, that’s about $60 per hour. Multiply that over three days and your client is spending $720,000 on salaries alone. That’s the opportunity cost of the event, valuing all the things those staff aren’t doing because they’re in a ballroom being motivated by the program you put together. That’s quite a sum of money. And this is an industry that offers a thrilling level of commercial risk. So much to go wrong, so little chance to go back and fix it. A bad batch of paper towelling procured on the cheap can be sent back to the distributor with little consequence. An event? Keynote presentations can be killed stone dead with a chip failure in a single device, the sort of thing that happens around the office every day. But at an event, there’s no “come back tomorrow, it’ll be all good”. Miss that window and you’ve severely compromised your client’s staff investment.

    Even if nothing goes terribly wrong, an event that’s just drab and pedestrian means nobody’s behaviour will change as a result. If I was the client spending that much, I’d want them walking out of there punching the air with excitement after two days of inspirational thrills. That’s something you need to help the procurement department understand. Better yet, discuss the opportunity costs with the client CEO to keep the decision out of their hands in the first place.

    Tell them what you’re doing to safeguard their investment. On the presentation side, there is much you can do that often doesn’t happen on the cut-price event. Getting accurate technical plans drawn up so nothing changes on site, so setups run to schedule, so rehearsals don’t run late or get missed, so all your presenters and techs are relaxed and prepared.

    Assembling all your media before the event, so it can all be checked and consolidated, rather than panicky onsite triage. Having hot backups of show computers so that if one locks up, you’re ready. Using AV techs you’ve worked with before, who know the client and their presentation style. These are the things that translate into a better experience for the higher levels of management, and better results for their large investment in the event. Once they believe it’s an investment rather than just an expense, you become a consultant rather than a tradie. It’s so much nicer spending your time advising than quoting.